The Passover is a ceremony full of symbolism, with all the rituals and ceremonial food and drink pointing either back to something God has done or forward to something God would do. Of course, all of it is now “has done” because Christ, the fulfillment of all the Old Testament prophecy and symbolism, has come.
Note, however, that much of the symbolism and ceremony was not prescribed by God. Rather, these things were developed over the years as rabbis and other spiritual leaders sought to form an orderly way to put into practice God’s instruction to continue the Passover year after year. The symbols and recitations incorporated the Scriptures they received from God’s prophets, no doubt changing as new words from the Lord came. It is not unlike our liturgy, in that sense, which while not prescribed in Scripture, still incorporates Scripture and is useful in consistently pointing us to specific truths.
However, even though it was not ordered by God, there is no doubt Jesus intentionally made use of the symbolism in the ceremony to add significance to the things he said and did the night before his death. We have already seen this in his words, “Do this in remembrance of me” as he instituted the Lord’s Supper. Another place to see it is in his words in the Garden as he prayed.
During the Passover ceremony there are four cups of wine each participant drinks. Each cup represents an aspect of God’s saving work, as expressed in Exodus 6:2-8: (1) “I will bring you out” (2) “I will free you” (3) “I will redeem you” (4) “I will take you as my own”.
There is a fifth cup in the ceremony, one that no participant drinks. This cup is called the “cup of iniquity” or the “cup of wrath.” The use of this cup likely derives from Jeremiah 25:15-17*:
This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, said to me: “Take from my hand this cup filled with the wine of my wrath and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it. When they drink it, they will stagger and go mad because of the sword I will send among them.”So I took the cup from the Lord’s hand and made all the nations to whom he sent me drink it.
Depending on which traditional order (or haggadah) you follow, the cup of wrath is filled either during the recitation of the plagues of Exodus (a drop is poured into the cup by all for each plague) or it is filled as the fourth cup that the participants drink is filled. In either case, the cup is set aside and no participant drinks of it. To drink of God’s wrath would be a terrible thing.
Yet, when we follow Jesus to the Garden, what do we hear him say? “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). To those of us who have not done the Passover year after year, we might wonder what the cup is, or why he refers to what is coming as a cup. As a child I heard this story and it was explained to me by parents, pastors, and teachers that the cup was a reference to his upcoming suffering. But why a cup? I had no idea.
It is in understanding the Passover that Jesus’ words suddenly become so clear. For 33 years Jesus had celebrated the Passover, and for 33 years he had joined his family or friends in pouring the cup of wrath. How many times did he stare at that cup, knowing it was his to drink some day? How did he feel that last night, looking at the cup knowing in a few short hours he would experience its meaning in full?
But he knew that no one else could drink the cup of God’s wrath. He knew that before the foundations of the earth were laid, it would be his to drink. So he prayed that awesome prayer, “Not my will by yours be done.” His Father’s will was that Jesus take the cup of wrath and drink it in our place.
*There is some debate about the fifth cup among modern Judaism. Older writings indicate a debate between rabbis about how many cups to drink in the Passover. Some said four, some said five, and so modern rabbis say to have four cups, but to fill a fifth that is not to be drunk. This cup is often referred to as “Elijah’s Cup”, as Jewish folklore closely associates a return of the prophet Elijah with the coming of the Messiah. The cup, therefore, represents a time of peace and prosperity for the Jewish people. Older traditions hold that this will also include an outpouring of God’s wrath on the enemies of God’s people, hence the name “cup of wrath.” Current tradition is to pour it and wait to see if Elijah will come and drink from it, indicating that the Messiah’s coming is near. Year after year the cup goes undisturbed, but there is a better sign that has been ignored by the Jewish people – the resurrection of the Messiah after his death on the cross. More information can be found here, here, and here.